ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is set to return to Pakistan on Thursday, a move that could further unsettle a country gripped by a political crisis and a bloody conflict with Islamic militants.
In recent months, Bhutto has been negotiating terms of her return with embattled President Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who seized power in a coup in 1999.
The bitter rivals have not come to an agreement, and Musharraf has asked Bhutto to delay her return. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party is trying to draw a million people into the streets of Karachi on Thursday to welcome her and relaunch her political career.
Bhutto and Musharraf have tried to put together a power-sharing deal. Bhutto and her party agreed not to object Oct. 6 when Musharraf was re-elected by assemblies dominated by lawmakers from his coalition. In return, Musharraf has wiped away corruption charges that Bhutto, 54, left the country to avoid eight years ago.
In addition, she is to be allowed to seek the prime minister’s job again in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Musharraf agreed to give up his post as army chief if he was re-elected. His re-election and amnesty offer for Bhutto and other politicians face legal challenges in Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Some Pakistanis say the United States is engineering a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance to keep the military strongman in control of the country’s nuclear arsenal and its fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers in lawless areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Bhutto “is being brought back by the Americans for their own agenda,” says Mehtab Reza, an employee at an Islamabad courier company.
U.S. officials have denied orchestrating a deal. On Oct. 11, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he “would certainly take exception to the idea that the United States is somehow stage-managing, guiding or otherwise telling Pakistanis how to run their own internal affairs.”
Musharraf’s popularity has plunged. He angered secular Pakistanis with an unsuccessful move to oust the country’s chief justice. Islamists were infuriated when Pakistani security forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad and wiped out radicals holed up inside. In recent weeks, hundreds of soldiers and tribesmen have died in fighting as troops re-entered tribal areas in search of militants. Musharraf’s approval rating sank to 21% in September from 54% in February, according to polls by the International Republican Institute, the democracy-promoting arm of the U.S. Republican Party.
Bhutto probably can expect a warmer reception than the one given to Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in the coup and tried his own return from exile Sept. 10.
Sharif and his entourage were detained at the airport, then bundled back onto an airplane and flown to Saudi Arabia.
Sharif vows to go home for good and re-enter politics next month. “We want a level playing field,” says Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party.
Bhutto is a member of a family that has been a political dynasty in Pakistan. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister before being overthrown and executed by the military three decades ago.
She rose to become prime minister twice, in 1988 and in 1996. She clashed repeatedly with the other two major political powers: Pakistan’s president and its army. She also was dogged by accusations of corruption and mismanagement. Her husband, Karachi businessman Asif Ali Zardari, was nicknamed “Mr. 10 Percent” by Pakistan’s media after it was alleged that he took bribes for government contracts.
Stephen Cohen, South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says Musharraf’s willingness to enter into an alliance with Bhutto signals that he might soon order a major offensive against pro-Taliban militants using border areas to attack U.S. and NATO forces supporting the Afghan government.
Musharraf and his generals will want to share any blame with a civilian government, particularly if the operation turns bloody, Cohen says.
“They will want her to provide the smiley face if they go after the radicals,” he says.
Wiseman reported from Hong Kong; Sheikh from Islamabad.
Corrections & Clarifications
October 31, 2007, page 2A
The International Republican Institute, a non-partisan organization that is based in Washington and promotes democracy worldwide, is not affiliated with the Republican Party. It was misidentified in stories on Pakistan that ran Monday and on Oct. 23 and Oct. 17.